After M-A administrators found swastikas scrawled on bathroom walls in early December 2022, they responded with a police report, held conversations with M-A’s Jewish Student Union (JSU), and encouraged students to make appointments with social-emotional counselors. In Principal Karl Losekoot’s message to students on Canvas, he wrote, “As we move forward, it is important that we work together in order to teach everyone in our community about the inappropriateness of such hate speech and images and their impact on us as a community.”
Swift condemnation of these acts by M-A’s administration clearly displayed our school’s commitment to the safety of every student. However, they maintained the assumption that these acts of antisemitism spawned from ignorance, spreading the message that we must continue to “teach” to each other that hate speech was unacceptable. The belief that prejudice comes from ignorance gives perpetrators the benefit of the doubt, which in some cases can be reasonable. Given how much we are taught about prejudice at M-A, it is far more plausible that these antisemitic acts are a type of trolling—the act of intentionally trying to instigate conflict by saying provocative things. Trolls are purposefully controversial, often slinging harmful insults masked as jokes to trigger a reaction.
We are often taught to ignore these types of people because of the risk that we will give them the attention they crave. We laugh off painful jokes so that we are not seen as sensitive. However, by not calling them out from the start, we become bystanders in “casual” antisemitism.
The issue of antisemitism at M-A is more than just a single swastika—as Jewish students, we have been targets of “jokes” that draw on anti-Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy theories. Senior and JSU President Jackie Nassiri said, “In ninth grade, I was called a k*ke by an older kid for wearing my Star of David necklace. I was taken aback.” Further, immediately after Principal Losekoot’s Flex Time webinar, we witnessed numerous students joking that they drew the swastikas themselves.
Importantly, male students committed every case of antisemitism we have heard of or experienced ourselves. Numerous studies have found that boys are more likely to use the Internet as a space to be inflammatory and controversial, leading them to fall down the rabbit hole of trolling more often. Because of their anonymity, online forums such as 4Chan, Reddit, and Discord act as a breeding ground for hate. These sites blur the line between joking and sincere prejudice and are known for allowing users to post antisemitic slurs and symbols. One trend, for example, encouraged users to impersonate rabbis on other websites to spread anti-Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy theories. Many of the young men who participate in these forums know they spread lies but are entertained by the shock value of what others post. This makes it more important that male students continue to call out their friends, especially in private, all-male spaces where no one else will hold them accountable.
This behavior has evidently spilled into real life, with trolls seemingly forgetting that they are causing harm to real people, whose ancestors may have been murdered because of the hateful messages that swastikas send. According to the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge Awareness Survey, almost half of the participants had seen Holocaust “denial or distortion” on social media. Between 2018 and 2020, researchers found nearly 10,000 videos denying the Holocaust on YouTube. This does not just happen online. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that the number of antisemitic incidents had increased 36% from 2,717 in 2021 to 3,697 incidents in 2022 alone. This marks a steady increase in antisemitism from 1979, when the ADL began surveying for antisemitic incidents, and a more drastic climb throughout the last few years.
Because of the real-life implications of hate speech, as students, we must condemn hate speech as soon as we hear it, and cannot let even seemingly small comments be swept under the rug. We will soon be pushed into a less sheltered world, without webinars and Canvas emails, and will need to have the courage to confront uncomfortable situations on our own. Junior and JSU co-president Asher Goodman said, “I have experienced antisemitism from individual people, like being called slurs, but I’ve never had people act with violence. It usually comes from the people closest to me.” Speaking out against friends and peers may seem risky, but the slim chance of seeming sensitive is worth the long-term benefits of standing up for your community.
Jewish parent Karen Orzechowski added, “Even if it’s just a swastika on the bathroom wall, we have to nip it in the bud immediately and take it extremely seriously when we see it in our community, because attacks become less offensive to people when they see things as normal.” Shaming individuals in a firm but not cruel way is necessary in order to remind peers that their actions and words are hurtful and unacceptable. While you should always aim for empathy and kindness, sometimes you just need to tell them to shut up.